Public criticism that police ignored illegal drug activity flared after the 10th annual "Weedfest," held on May 11 and 12 in the parking lot of Chicago's Soldier Field with a permit from the Chicago Park District (Jim Ritter, "Joint Venture: Law Ignores Weedfest," Chicago Sun Times, May 13, 1996, p. 6; Ted Gregory, "Pastor protests parks-sanctioned marijuana fest," Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1996, p. 5; Joan Fencik, "Weedfest facts," Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1996, p. 16; Dennis Byrne, "Dazed and Confused," Chicago Sun Times, May 14, 1996, p.29).
The festival, attended by over 25,000 people, raised about $50,000 for the non-profit Illinois Marijuana Initiative (IMI). The group advocates the decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal and commercial purposes and ultimately for "recreational" use. "We want absolutely no restrictions on the hemp plant whatsoever. ... We need to take it out of the criminal category," said IMI president Rich Byrne. He also noted that the IMI does not condone "the casual, recreational use of marijuana, because it's illegal." IMI agreed in the permit for the festival that no illegal activity would be allowed on Park District property.
It was this alleged "casual" use of marijuana at "Weedfest" that stirred controversy after the event. Rev. Michael Pfleger, the anti-drug pastor of St. Sabina's Church, reported that someone tried to deal him some pot as he got out of his car during a visit to the festival. "Every place we looked, on the right, left, in front and behind us, there were people rolling, inhaling or selling [marijuana]," he said. Pfleger also objected to the conspicuous selling of drug paraphernalia and the open use of marijuana by minors.
Pfleger and other critics complained that police allegedly ignored the massive evidence of illegal drug activity at the event, but officials point to the fact that at least nine arrests were made for marijuana possession. The police also claim that it was their job to direct traffic for the festival, not to patrol "a private event" in which security was provided by the Park District. Joan Fencik, deputy general counsel for the Chicago Park District, responded to the controversy in a letter to the Chicago Tribune on May 22. She said, "The First Amendment does not allow the Park District to deny a permit because it disagrees with a group's political agenda ... [but] it does not require us to issue next year's permit if the allegations of illegal drug use are verified.
Police made 33 arrests and used spray to disperse the crowd at a "Hemp Fest," held at Credit Island Park on May 18 (Seth Hettana and Doug Schorpp, "Melee erupts at hemp event," Quad-City Times, May 19, 1996, p. 1A; Jeff Ewoldt, "Organizer: 'I ain't gonna let 'em stop Hemp Fest'," Quad-City Times, May 21, 1996, p. 1A; Jonathon Turner and Steven Jagler, "Hemp Fest turns violent," The Dispatch (IL), May 19, 1996, p. A1).
"Hemp Fest," which organizers said was intended to promote the benefits of the hemp plant, had just begun when police moved in to arrest four people allegedly smoking pot. According to Davenport Police Chief Steve Lynn, after a few individuals incited the crowd to intervene with and resist the arrests, the assemblage grew into "a crowd of near-riot proportion." One officer reported that people in the crowd began "throwing bottles and rocks" at the police. A Davenport police officer underwent surgery for a knee injury and one festival-goer came away with a broken nose sustained during the fracas. Police used Capstunr, a substance similar to pepper spray, to disperse the estimated 300-400 "Hemp Fest" participants. "There's no 'free day' I'm aware of where we're not supposed to enforce laws," Lynn said. "We tried to deal with it as effectively as we could."
Participants, including "Hemp Fest" organizer Bob Moldenhauer, were arrested and held on various charges, including possession of marijuana, inciting a riot, and assaulting a police officer. More than 20 people, including teenagers, were issued citations and released.
Some witnesses claim that the police provoked the brawl in which several children were sprayed by police. "The mace wasn't aimed at people smoking," said Tanya Wheeler, 19. "They were walking around spraying everybody. I had it in my mouth, and it burns your throat." Police Chief Lynn said the accidental spraying of some children was unavoidable.
Officials reported more than 100 arrests, most of them drug-related, during the annual four- day "Weedstock" festival in Sparta, Wisconsin on May 23-26 ("Police arrest scores at marijuana event," Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1996, p.11; "Wisconsin," USA Today, May 28, 1996, p. A10).
A law enforcement officer said that "Weedstock," a festival held to educate people about the value of the marijuana plant, was more about getting high than education. "I see it as more use of it, than information about it," said Lt. Charles Schwarz of the Monroe County Sheriff's Department. Officials say that more than 3,000 people attended the festival.